What is a will?

Ever wondered what a will is and why you need one? Our handy guide explains it all

(Image credit: getty images)

Arranging a will is a crucial way of not only providing peace of mind to your loved ones after you’ve gone, but potentially protecting them financially too.

However, a whopping 29.6 million UK adults don’t have a will according to financial services provider Canada Life (opens in new tab).  

Read on to find out how wills work and how they can save your family from extra upset when getting your finances in order after you pass away. 

 What is a will? 

A will is a legal document outlining your last wishes regarding how you want your worldly goods to be shared out. This can include any property you own along with your savings, investments and personal items.

Your will can be as simple as saying you want to leave the lot to one person, or specifying multiple beneficiaries, including family and friends, along with details of who gets what.

Making your will also provides the opportunity to include any funeral arrangements you would like, although it’s a good idea to let close family know about this too. You can also set out who you would want to care for your children, if you’re no longer around.  

“While you can scribble your will on a piece of paper, it’s not a good idea as you can make mistakes, and you need to make sure it’s signed and witnessed by two independent witnesses”, says Emma Prince, financial adviser at Quilter Financial Advisers (opens in new tab). This is crucial as if a will isn’t done properly, it can be invalid. 

Why do I need a will? 

There’s no law to say you must have a will. However, if you die without one, everything you own will be divided up under strict legal rules which could mean loved ones being left out.

“Too many people put off writing a will”, says Sean McCann, chartered financial planner at NFU Mutual. (opens in new tab)  “But if you die without one, your estate will be distributed under the laws of intestacy, and these laws don’t provide for your partner to benefit if you are unmarried or not in a civil partnership, regardless of the time you have been together.” 

And even if you are married with children, under intestacy law (opens in new tab), there are limits on how much of your estate each can inherit.

However even if you’ve made a will, it’s not a case of job done, as you may want to review it over the years, especially after big life changes, like getting married, having children or grandchildren, getting divorced or if you come into an inheritance.

What goes in a will? 

 “You can put in as little or as much as you like”, says Gary Rycroft, partner with legal firm Joseph A. Jones & Co LLP. (opens in new tab)  “If you have a specific item of jewellery you want to go to someone, or your record collection, then put this in your will”.

“However with the nature of life, assets may change over time, so the risk of being too detailed ‒ say leaving shares in a specific company to one person ‒ could mean you no longer own that asset at the time of your death, so the gift would fail." 

When making your will, you need to appoint an ‘executor’.  This can be one or more people you trust, who take on the responsibility of sorting out your financial affairs and ensuring your last wishes are carried out.  

These duties will usually include contacting banks, pension providers and even arranging to sell your home, along with paying any inheritance tax due. As a result it’s really important to think carefully about who you would trust with this responsibility, as well as checking with them that they are comfortable doing so.

What types of wills are there? 

There are three main types of will: a ‘basic’ will, a ‘mirror’ will and a more complex will.

A basic will is suitable for those with straightforward instructions, while a mirror will is a pair of wills that are in effect identical ‒ for example it may be a husband leaving everything to their wife, and a wife leaving everything to their husband.

“A basic will may be suitable for a single person, who has their own assets, with  mirror wills for couples ‒ whether they’re married or not ‒ as they may have a house and children together and it makes sense to think of each other and take a joint approach,” says Gary Rycroft.

“If you’ve got a more complex family structure, say children from an earlier marriage, or have a business or foreign assets, then a more complex will may be needed.” 

This is ultimately reflected in the price you pay, as the cost of a simple will starts at around £80, according to consumer group Which?, (opens in new tab) while a more complex one may cost anything above £500.

How can I get a will? 

You can use a solicitor to draw up your will.  Taking this route means you’ll benefit from legal advice on the best way to carry out your wishes, along with how to minimise any potential inheritance tax bill.

Unless you know a local solicitor or can go on recommendation, you can find one using the ‘Find A Solicitor’ tool (opens in new tab) on the Law Society website.    

While you will pay to have your will done by a solicitor, there are ways you can make your will for free.

Another option is to check if you have access to a will writing service through your union or workplace, as you may benefit from a discounted rate.

Finally, it is possible to write a will yourself. You can find templates for ‘do-it-yourself’ wills online, or purchase them in certain high street shops. As mentioned however, this can be a risky tactic as it’s easy for them to be invalid, meaning the contents are ignored.

What happens if I don’t have a will? 

If you die without a valid will in place, it can make it more complicated for your family to sort out your financial affairs.   

Your closest living relative ‒ usually your husband, wife or civil partner ‒ will need to apply to be the ‘administrator’ of your estate, in order to begin the process of winding up your estate.

Aside from the extra time and legwork doing this, everything you own will then need to be divided up under intestacy law, which means those you may have wanted to inherit could miss out.   

In the worst scenario, if you die without leaving a will, and any family can’t be traced, your estate could go entirely to the Government.

Sue Hayward

Sue Hayward is a personal finance and consumer journalist, broadcaster and author who regularly chats on TV and Radio on ways to get more power for your pound.  Sue’s written for a wide range of publications including the Guardian, i Paper, Good Housekeeping, Lovemoney and My Weekly. Cats, cheese and travel are Sue’s passions away from her desk!